About this Recording
8.557574-75 - HANDEL: Solomon, HWV 67
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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Solomon
(An Oratorio in Three Parts)

Solomon - Ewa Wolak, Mezzo-Soprano
Pharaoh's Daughter, Queen / Second Woman - Elisabeth Scholl, Soprano
Nicaule, Queen of Sheeba / First Woman - Nicola Wemyss, Soprano
Zadok / Attendant - Knut Schoch, Tenor
Levite - Matthias Vieweg, Bass

Junge Kantorei
Frankfurt Baroque Orchestra
Joachim Carlos Martini

 

 

It was in the mid-1740s that George Frideric Handel succeeded in making a great breakthrough with his biblical oratorios. There was enthusiastic approval for his music and the plot, the dramatic course of the text, not only in London but in the whole of England, and Handel further succeeded in winning over all the relevant social classes of the time, a result of a series of complex developments in British society.

One factor in this development was that the music composed for the oratorio now also appealed to people for whom, because of an educational deficiency, the result of their background and their social milieu, a visit to the opera did not appear particularly attractive. The representation of court life with all its tricks and intrigues, the usual subject of operatic plots, generally found no response in the souls of the middle class, while the 'blood-and-thunder Judaism', as Winton Dean puts it, of a Judas Maccabaeus or Joshua did (Note 1).

Christopher Hogwood makes this way of thinking clear with the aid of a letter from Lady Luxborough to the poet William Shenstone. She reported that her steward was 'highly entertained' at a performance of Judas Maccabaeus and concluded that musical understanding was no longer necessary for people of this kind to enjoy such performances. (Note 2)

The public that in increasing numbers began to show interest in performances of oratorio came no longer from the aristocracy but also from the middle classes, and, as we can understand from Lady Luxborough's letter, not only from the upper middle class. In addition to the music for a broad circle of new audiences there were also moral and socio-cultural aspects of no negligible importance.

Christopher Hogwood quotes Catherine Talbot, who in December 1743 heard the oratorio Samson and summed up her impressions with the opinion that 'this kind of entertainment must necessarily have some effect in correcting or moderating at least the levity of the age'. We read further that Lady Elizabeth Heywood, inspired by a performance of the oratorio Joshua, wrote in her Epistles for the Ladies of 1749 that such concerts might 'go a great Way in reforming an Age, which seems to be degenerating equally into an Irreverence for the Deity, and a Brutality of Behavior to each other; but as this Depravity of taste, of Principles, and Manners, has spread itself from London even to the remotest Parts of this Island, I should be glad there were Oratorios established in every City and great Town throughout the Kingdom; but even then, to be of general Service, they ought to be given gratis, and all Degrees of People allowed to partake of them, otherwise it is but an inconsiderable Number, in comparison with the whole, whose Fortunes would admit of their being improved this Way'. (Note 3)

Hand in hand with this development there were changes also in the circle of those collaborating in oratorio performances. Choirs started increasingly to be made up of amateur singers, and at the same time orchestras declared themselves ready to take gifted amateurs into their ranks. In the place of Italian opera stars there were more and more singers from Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales who, while they might sometimes perhaps lack the Italian virtuosity so prized by the nobility, lacked nothing of heart, engagement and charisma.

Handel composed his powerful oratorio Solomon in less than six weeks between 3 May and 13 June 1748, and after a short break sat down at his desk to start the score of Susanna, finishing it during the last week of August. The writer of the texts of both oratorios is not known. Winton Dean suggests that both texts are from the pen of a poet, since they are very similar in their diction and their choice of many metaphors derived chiefly from nature. Thomas Morell, mentioned by some music historians as the author, in the opinion of Winton Dean as also of Bernard Baselt (Note 4), on stilistic grounds, but above all on account of his earlier prosaic way of thinking and expression, cannot be considered.

The unknown librettist used as sources the First Book of Kings, chapters 3-11 and chapter 22, 28-29, and the Second Book of Chronicles, chapters 1-9, and also The Early History of the Jews (VIII, 2-7) of Flavius Josephus, and made from these a text that could correspond completely to the long outstanding change in mental attitude of the composer and inspired him to music that is among his most extraordinary and wonderful creations.

Winton Dean describes the change of Handel's world view and, associated with it, the change of his image of himself as a way of distancing himself from emotional openness, of objectivisation tending in performance to the confession of his personal belief, a belief that God is found also in nature. In Otto Erich Deutsch we find the text of the announcement of 17 March 1749 and the advertisement of the first performance. The General Advertiser wrote: 'At the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, This Day will be perform'd a New Oratorio, call'd SOLOMON. With a CONCERTO … (to begin at Half an Hour after Six o'Clock.)'

The singers were:
Solomon - Signora (Caterina) Galli, mezzo-soprano
Zadok - Mr (Thomas) Lowe, tenor
A Levite - Mr (Thomas) Reinhold, bass
Pharaoh's daughter (Queen to Solomon) - Signora (Giulia) Frasi
Nicaule (Queen of Sheba) - Signora Frasi
First Harlot (First Woman) - Signora Frasi, soprano
Second Harlot (Second Woman) - Signora Sibilla, soprano

There seems no clear explanation of why Handel should have given priority to the first performance of Susanna over that of Solomon. I have also been unable to find any reports of how the London public reacted to its first hearing of Solomon. The performance was repeated only twice, on 20 and 22 March 1749, after which it was put aside for many years. That Solomon won little popularity is witnessed by the fact that during the composer's life there were no other performances outside London.

First in March 1759, a few weeks before his death, Handel resolved to perform the oratorio once more, but before this he undertook a series of cuts and alterations that affected the plot and dramatic structure. He struck out the whole of the first part up to the aria 'Haste to the cedar grove'; the second part of the first version became the new first part; the third part of the first version was divided between the new second and third parts, and expanded through new phrases and the aria 'Haste to the cedar grove' from the former first part.

Handel himself set a quite different value on his oratorio than that of his public. How much he loved the work can be measured by the fact that before the first performance he used some parts of it for one of his many charity concerts for the chapel of the Foundling Hospital and found a refuge for many arias paraphrased in other oratorios.

Yet how is it possible to explain this open contradiction between the composer's personal valuation of Solomon on the one hand and the clear indifference, if not outright rejection of the work by the London public? The changes that Handel undertook in 1759 affected particularly the love scenes, and they were radical enough; he struck them completely out of the score. The quality of the music could hardly have given occasion for such cuts; the music of Solomon counts among the most wonderful music that Handel wrote. The reservations cannot have been because of the dramatic course of the narrative, as the plot, apart from the judgement scene in Part II, leads on to no dramatic climax. It can only be supposed that the tender and direct openness of these scenes had worried the prudish sensibility of the audience so that the composer felt it necessary to remove them from the structure of Solomon. Yet I am sure that there are other explanations for the failure of the work.

The majority of all relevant musico-historical performances start from the idea that Handel composed the work as a tribute to the England of his royal patron, George II, and also to the country in which he had finally settled and to the society that had received him so hospitably. According to this interpretation the world of Solomon reflects the world of England, its landscape, its society, its culture, as the composer had experienced them, idealised, but at the same time a real encounter with the actual Utopia of a bourgeois-aristocratic, humanistically orientated and tolerant society, which, under the rule of a God-fearing king, had risen to the highest form of possible perfection.

Perhaps Handel's thoughts in fact ran on these lines, but it is certain that the London public did not accept this hommage and I mean that it had a fine nose for the fact that this music finally was far from all the criteria of a tribute composition. It may be that the erotic atmosphere of the first and last parts had led to general irritation, but it rather seems to me that first the image of the king was the cause of confusion and uneasiness.

This Solomon is neither a daring warrior nor a brutal killer, no ruler who, with a harsh hand, had been able to force together under the yoke of the crown the Irish, Welsh and Scots, no fundamentalist, who used his power to impress his own truth on those of other beliefs, and still less an enlightened despot, who had for the benefit of the welfare of his subjects maintained bourgeois freedoms and the right to poverty or to wealth. The question that worries the Solomon of this oratorio is how to control the consuming phenomenon of power so that it does not turn into despotism. This question, however, always precedes the experience of the destructive might of power.

This power has a number of forms and must never be so blatant as the composer portrays it in Part III with the representation of hybrid, blasphemous lust for battle which, I think, is not without inner terror: 'Shake the dome and pierce the sky …'. It can also send out invisible rays and destroy not only those who are close to the powerful but also bring to nothing those from whom power proceeds. It is not always the body that visibly perishes, but also, above all unnoticed, the soul. Then the chorus 'From the east unto the west, who so wise as Solomon?', a eulogy on the wisdom of Solomon, changes abruptly from a light-footed gavotte into a world of sound that makes clear that the man who cannot keep his soul safe within the structure of political, social or psychic power, burns to death like a moth in a candle-flame.

Solomon's perception of the fragility of all human existence is found, with the exception of the aria 'Haste to the cedar grove' in all his words: strength alone does not change into despotic power if it is reflected, acquired and realised always as springing from the relationship of God to men and exclusively through the relationship of a definite phenomenon.

The music of this text is fragile and transparent, and it makes it very clear what great efforts are needed to win and to preserve a natural balance between power and humility. This is witnessed by the introductory music of the chorus 'With pious hearts' in sounds that could turn our world upside down, if people only had the ears to hear it. There had never before been such music in the world; then it was 'unheard' and so it is still too today for our ears. Solomon knows of his 'mighty' loneliness before God and the world. Could the love of a woman hold him? When the two lovers sing their duet of wonderful union and each concentrates all feelings for the other beloved being in an aria in their own fashion, it can be heard how differently the woman feels from the man. Worlds lie between them who yet are so near. And how directly the composer, in the scene of the judgement of Solomon, brings the world of the harlots into that of the court! There is no distance, no possibility of the exchange avoiding the physical as well as the psychological human reality of the harlots. In this world the wide range of the possibilities of human existence are shown as unbroken and there is no distinction of any kind between the personal experience of each who hears it and that of the world of the harlots, at least what maternal love, gratitude and tender experience there may be in the world, as also each individual listener may experience or imagine the world of the harlots. That no qualitative distinction is audible can be an occasion for some consternation! In that respect there can be no proper debate as to whether, in the sources of the libretto, the two women were really prostitutes in the narrow sense of the word. In the usage of the Near East an unmarried woman who gives birth is a 'whore'. It is hardly credible that the translation of the Hebrew word as 'harlot' was a philological coinage. The composer's representation of the exchange between the two women would not have pleased the contemporary public. The abysmal despair of the 'wicked', childless woman, makes recrimination hardly more possible. She is ill and depressive, so ill that she cannot be healed either in the Arcadian world of Solomon. Handel does not hide the divergence and since this contradiction is not to be surmounted, this unfortunate woman disappears, as if she were swallowed up into the ground.

At the centre of the oratorio stands the scene of the fulfilment of a true miracle, the Temple of Jerusalem. It stands as a sign of the religious bond of the people of Israel and their king with God, their Lord. At the same time, however, the Temple is also a sign of the living and everlasting grace of God. In the course of Part III Handel lets Solomon, at the request of the visiting Queen of Sheba, conjure up visions in the air. This magic panorama glides into the representation of the Temple. Zadok, the High Priest, outlines, together with the Levites, before our inner eyes the image of an immeasurably magnificent building, the most wonderful treasure of which is the representation of angels praising God, Cherubim, who praise God unheard in the 'Sanctus'. Here the chorus immediately joins with 'Praise the Lord' and introduces the elements of an initially particularly aesthetically marked imagery, where they had their origin, namely in the world of faith. I mention it since it brings with it a much wider meaning, to take this chorus from its context and present it as a final chorus. My experiences with Handel's compositions are that he chose his texts with great care and paid precise attention to their sequence. I rely, therefore, on the version he proposed.

A performance of this work must, for this reason, always be uncut. The world into which the composer leads us, is the paradise of a Hieronymus Bosch, a world in which nature, still unprofaned, is ready to receive human souls, a world in which people still understand how to trust nature, that they may speak to it with the imagery of their souls. This expressive ability constitutes the wonder of Handel's music; in it these images find ever again new possibilities of life. To articulate these images and to acknowledge oneself in them as one of nature's own, their essence immediately originating and coming from God, and to grant to all men this ability to express and understand is Handel's proper tribute and it is a tribute to the whole of humanity, sustained by God.

Joachim C. Martini
English version: Keith Anderson

Note:
1 Dean, Winton: Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques, Oxford, 1990, passim
2 Hogwood, Christopher: Handel, London, 1984, p.212
3 ib. p.212
4 Baselt, Bernd: Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis: Oratorische Werke, Vokale Kammermusik, Kirchenmusik, Händel-Handbuch, Bd. 2, Leipzig, 1984

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Synopsis

[CD 1 / Track 1] & [1/2] Overture and Allegro

Part I

[1/3] - [1/11] Scene 1
At the centre of the first scene stands the Temple that Solomon, at the behest of his father, David, has had built in Jerusalem. For seven long years the builders and carpenters, sculptors and painters, have worked on it; but now, finally, it is finished and Solomon opens the doors and enters, together with the crowd of priests, the High Priest Zadok and the Levites, to bring a sacrifice to God and beg his blessing. Their prayer is heard, the sacrificial fire starts to glow and announces that the Lord of the Heavenly Host is present. Deeply moved the priests proclaim the grace and mercy of God, and Solomon understands that all his knowledge, all his wisdom without God's help would be empty and as nothing.

[1/12] - [1/23] Scene 2
The Queen, Solomon's wife that he loves above all, enters. Solomon promises her, as a sign of his love, to have built a palace of cedar, decked with gold and precious stones, that will not have its equal in splendour. Deeply moved, the Queen praises the day on which she was married to him, and they are both united in their knowledge of the mutual tenderness of their love. Zadok blesses their union, based on love, trust and fidelity, and Solomon urges her away to be united with him in the nearby cedar grove. She follows him, not without expressing once more in wonder her deep love for him. Their friends, however, implore the flowers to surround the lovers with their fragrance and the nightingales the lovers with their song.

Part II

[1/24] - [1/28] Scene 1
The Israelites rejoice and praise Solomon's good fortune, wishing him eternal life. Solomon, however, well knows that he owes his knowledge, his wealth and his might only to the grace of God, which has brought him from darkness to light, from misery and mortal need to life, and he realises that to praise God is for him the most important task of his life.

[1/29] Scene 2
A servant enters and announces that there are two women standing at the gates of the palace who are in violent dispute over the maternity of a child and want the King to settle the matter.

[2/1] - [2/12] Scene 3
The two women storm in. One of them claims that the other has stolen her child from her. She lives together with her in the same house. The child of the other is dead, and the neighbour in the night has replaced the living baby with the body of the dead child. Now she claims to be its mother. The other woman claims this is false and that she alone is the child's mother. It is now for Solomon to find the truth. Solomon decrees that the two women should both have their portions and that the child be cut in two, so that each should have an equal part. One of them agrees to this cruel decision, but the other begs for the child's life to be spared; rather would she renounce her claim to the child than see it killed. In this way she has given proof of her claim to be the true mother, and so Solomon gives her the child, while he banishes the other woman from his sight.

Part III

[2/13] - [2/34] Scene 1
The astonished witnesses of Solomon's wisdom unite in praise and thanks. Wonderful music is heard and the Queen of Sheba enters Solomon's palace. His reputation as the wisest of the wise among rulers induced her to undertake the strains and dangers of a long journey through the Arabian desert and now she stands before him to learn of his 'heavenly wisdom'. Solomon receives her with great friendliness and attention and asks his singers and musicians to play for the royal guest of human passions, of lovely music, of the blasphemous aggressiveness of men, of mortal despair that scorned love brings, finally to let the music sound once more, as it can, to soothe rebellious feelings and lead souls into the state of rest.

The Queen of Sheba is overwhelmed. She gives thanks with the gold, precious stones, incense and spices that she has brought with her from Sheba on the backs of a great caravan of numberless camels. Solomon is no less generous. With moving words they praise God, together with the priests, and with mutual good wishes they take leave of each other.

'The name of the wicked shall quickly be passed / But the fame of the just shall eternally last'. With this comforting promise the oratorio comes to an end.

Joachim C. Martini
English version: Keith Anderson

 

Sung texts for this release are available online at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/solomon.htm.


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